Foolproof five: the best plants to grow for bees
Flowers & Herbs, Garden of Eatin'

Foolproof Five: The Best Plants to Grow for Bees

Blanket flower (Gaillardia)

Growing a bee garden is as easy at it gets for a home gardener. There’s no need to seek out exotic blooms or struggle with fussy flowers that need to be pampered. Some of the best plants to grow for bees are what I consider the underdogs of a garden: those “plain Jane” flowers and hard-working herbs that normally wouldn’t get a second glance.

In fact, all my bee gardens over the years were planted primarily because of how low-maintenance they were. They’re fairly drought-tolerant, self-seeded freely as annuals, grew back every year as perennials, and did double-duty as human food and pollinator food (as was the case with my herbs).

They included traditional favorites like bee balm and sunflowers, as well as unassuming ground covers like sweet alyssum and sedum. I also let things like cilantro and parsley go to seed every season for this very reason (aside from my general laziness in cleaning up the garden right away).

Bee on flowering cilantro

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)

You see, bees and other pollinators are not particular about looks. They don’t want fields of fancy double-headed blooms, which — while certainly show-stopping — typically produce less nectar than single-headed flowers.

The “flowers within flowers” (like double dahlias and double peonies) also make it harder for bees to access pollen. While the cutting stems are great for the flower vase, they’re not so beneficial for bees.

Many of these grander blossoms are also hybridized plants. They’re bred not to seed and thus produce very little pollen. Bees keep landing on them, attracted to the bright colors, but won’t get their fill of nectar.

What do the bees like?

Recommended Seeds: Bee Happy Seed Collection | Bring Home the Butterflies Flower Mix | Medicinal and Herbal Tea Garden Collection

They’re partial to airy umbrellas of flowers (known as umbels) like the ones found on dill, fennel, and Queen Anne’s lace.

Fennel flowers

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

They love to feed on clusters of tiny flowers, such as those on yarrow, lantana, and chives.

Lantana

Lantana (Lantana camara)

They prefer small, flat flowers they can land and walk on, like cosmos, black-eyed susans, and blanket flowers. These flowers also happen to attract the widest variety of bees, as it’s just as important to feed mason bees, mining bees, and bumblebees (all your friendly natives) as well as the more-popularized European honeybees.

Black-eyed susans (rudbeckia)

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

They also like — no, need — very early bloomers (like dandelions) or very late bloomers (like bergamot) when food sources are generally scarce in the garden.

Dandelion flower

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

In fact, I always encourage gardeners to leave the dandelions on their lawns in early spring, as they provide an important source of food and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife when the landscape is looking bleak those first few weeks.

As you can see, it’s hard to go wrong with a bee garden. But if you want the best, no-fail flowering plants that have proven themselves in my own garden, year after year, here are my top five favorites.

Borage herb

1. Borage

Borage (Borago officinalis) doesn’t make most people’s lists of favorite flowers, but it’s high on mine. The dainty, star-shaped blossoms not only look beautiful, they taste great, too.

Borage is a culinary and medicinal herb that’s usually grown as an annual flower. It’s the most delightful edible plant, with a sweet, refreshing flavor similar to cucumber. I wonder if that’s why the bees can’t get enough of it?

Star-shaped borage flowers

It thrives in full sun, tolerates poor, dry soil, self-seeds readily, and can weather a couple of light frosts. In fact, once you have a crop of borage firmly established in your garden, you’ll likely never need to seed it again. (But it’s easy to keep under control if you don’t want it spreading everywhere.)

Recommended Seeds: Borage | Edible Flower Seeds Variety Pack

The plants grow quite stocky (up to 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide) and sometimes require staking if they become too top-heavy with flowers. They typically bloom from late spring through late summer, with plants in full sun producing the thickest stems and most flowers.

If you only have room to grow one bee-friendly flower in your garden this year, grow borage.

Yellow calendula

2. Calendula

As another medicinal herb that’s typically grown as an ornamental flower, calendula (Calendula officinalis) is an annual in most climates, and a short-lived perennial in warmer climates (USDA zones 8 through 10).

Calendula is sometimes known as pot marigold or simply, marigold — but should not be confused with marigolds from the genus Tagetes.

Recommended Seeds: Pacific Beauty Blend Calendula | Zeolights Calendula

In herbal medicine, calendula has been used to heal rashes, burns, and wounds, and the flower itself is edible. (Though to be honest, it’s not the most palatable of the edible flowers, with sharp flavors ranging from tangy to peppery to bitter.)

Calendula flower

Bees love the plant’s flat, easy landing pads and profusion of pollen- and nectar-rich flowers. Calendula blooms all season long from spring through fall, and even moreso when picked and deadheaded regularly.

Let it reseed freely, and this low-maintenance plant will grow back year after year, even in poor to average soil with only occasional watering.

Purple coneflower echinacea

3. Coneflower

Also known as echinacea, coneflowers are quite distinctive in the garden, with their daisy-like, drooping petals and cone-shaped mounds of tiny flowers at the center of their larger flower heads.

The mounds are basically beacons for bees, which are drawn to the flower’s rich nectaries. One look at echinacea’s spiny blooms and it’s no wonder that its scientific name is derived from the Greek word ekhinos, meaning hedgehog!

White echinacea flower

Coneflowers are ideal for desert climates, as they’re relatively drought-tolerant and can take the heat. (They’re also said to be somewhat deer-resistant, giving them an edge over other ornamental flowers. Of course, a deer that’s hungry enough will eat just about anything, so…)

Recommended Seeds: Purple Coneflower Echinacea | White Swan Echinacea | Herbal Tea Seeds Variety Pack

Most well-known of the Echinacea species are purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), but they also flower in shades of pink, red, orange, white, and green. They bloom from July to October and deadheading generally encourages more stems and more flowers, though some varieties are flower-producing machines that keep blooming, even without their spent blossoms removed.

Since they’re perennials, you can cut them down to the ground at the end of the season, and they’ll come back the following spring.

Milkweed plant

4. Milkweed

Milkweed (Asclepias) is best known for being the host plant and sole food source of the monarch butterfly larvae. (I wrote more about that here.) But milkweed also benefits bees, which love the clusters of little flowers that produce an abundance of nectar even in dry years.

While there are hundreds of milkweed species, four types of milkweed are good all-around choices for gardens in most areas of the country: butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), showy milkweed (A. speciosa), and common milkweed (A. syriaca). Collectively, these plants cover the vast majority of climates from USDA zones 3 to 9 as perennials.

Milkweed flowers

Depending on the species and climate, milkweed blooms from mid-spring through early fall. The easy-grow, easy-care plants can reach 2 to 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide, given full sun.

Recommended Seeds: Butterfly Milkweed | Irresistible Blend (Swamp) Milkweed | Showy Milkweed | Common Milkweed

With the exception of swamp milkweed (you can guess what type of environment that one thrives in), milkweed is extremely drought-tolerant and does well in poor to average, dry sandy soil. (Do you see a theme with my favorite bee-friendly flowers yet?)

To help sustain bee and butterfly populations, try planting a couple different varieties of milkweed that are native to your region. (Here’s a great guide to what grows best around the country.)

Flowering mint

Mint (Mentha x piperita)

5. The Mint Family

The mint family (Lamiaceae) includes culinary classics like mint (all types, from your everyday peppermint to the more interesting chocolate mint), basil, sage, oregano, rosemary, thyme, savory, and lavender, as well as lesser-known lemon balm and anise hyssop.

These Mediterranean herbs prefer full sun and well-draining soil with poor to moderate fertility, just like their origins. Some are tender perennials while others are grown as annuals; some have upright habits and can be shaped into hedges, while others make resilient creeping ground covers.

Recommended Seeds: Common Mint | Viva la Dolce Vita Bend Basil | Broadleaf Sage | True Greek Oregano | Rosemary | English Thyme | Summer Savory | Winter Savory | Hidcote Blue Lavender | Lemon Balm | Lavender (Anise) Hyssop | Herbal Tea Collection

You likely already have at least one of these herbs growing (if not several), but did you know they’re also some of the best bee-friendly plants to have around?

Pollinators love the constant crop of flowers from April through December, depending on your climate and cultivar.

Flowering rosemary herb

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary, for example, can bloom in late spring to early summer in temperate zones, or from late fall to early winter in warmer zones. (It also makes you smarter, per science.) Thyme has one of the longest blooming seasons of any herb, and doesn’t lose flavor once it flowers (so let it flower freely!).

By planting several of these highly aromatic herbs around your yard, you can create a pollinator oasis while reaping many of your own benefits, from seasoning food and steeping tea in the kitchen to companion planting and repelling pests in the garden.

Basil blooms

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Whichever flowers you choose, be sure to plant at least three different varieties that bloom at different times. That way, you can support a diverse ecosystem of not only bees, but also butterflies, birds, beetles, and other wildlife that depend on plants for food and habitat.

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